Determined and Persistent
Changing careers and starting from scratch
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
When Rebecca Barens was working toward a degree in interior design at Michigan State University, she clearly wasn’t planning to pursue a career in insurance. Now she’s the owner of a thriving independent agency with three offices across Michigan. What happened?
“I graduated in 2001, and I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t like interior design,” Barens says frankly. “After working in the field for a while, I decided to move into banking.”
While serving as a branch manager for PNC and then as a banking center manager for Bank of America, Barens earned a master’s degree in corporate finance and an MBA in finance. “My employers offered to pay for graduate degrees, and I thought that if the economy tanked, there’d be no harm in having a lot of education,” she says.
“While working toward those degrees, I took a class in insurance, and I really liked it,” she continues. “At around that time I realized that I’d have to be in banking for a very long time if I wanted to advance beyond my current level of management. My dad had a friend who owned an independent agency; I asked him to hire me, and he did.”
Barens’ move into insurance proved to be an excellent fit for a former banker and finance graduate. “I’m intrigued by studying different loss scenarios, and I love to read through policies. My husband jokingly calls me an insurance nerd, but being in this field lets me do a lot of things I really enjoy,” she says.
A bold leap
After serving as a producer at the agency for two years, Barens joined another firm where she became a commercial lines account executive and earned her CIC designation, and in June 2016 she made the leap to true independence.
“I was totally on my own,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a laptop, I didn’t have a phone, and I didn’t have a staff. Later I hired two part-time employees who worked from home. I wrote only commercial accounts because that’s what I knew.
“In early 2018, I looked at my cash flow for the past year and a half and said to myself: ‘I’m either totally in the chips or else I’m broke.’ I decided that the best way to level out my cash flow was to expand into personal lines. Because I didn’t have experience in that side of the business, it made sense to me to acquire an agency that focused on that segment.”
In October 2018, Barens acquired a personal lines agency in Grand Rapids. “The agency serves a primarily Hispanic population, which makes for an interesting situation because most of the clients pay their premiums in cash. With the pandemic, that makes it hard for employees to maintain the recommended social distance,” she comments.
“At the same time that I was arranging to purchase that agency, I was also talking with the owner of an agency in Waterford, and he wasn’t interested in selling,” Barens says. “In the spring of 2019, I found out that he was getting serious about retiring, and I acquired that agency in June.”
The name Barens chose for her business, Willow Insurance Group, connotes both strength and flexibility. In a windstorm, the trees that fall are old and rigid, whereas the graceful willow bends without breaking.
“Both of my parents were entrepreneurs, and they used the name Willow for their companies,” Barens explains. “It seemed a good fit for my agency, and I liked the fact that in a logo the willow looks like an umbrella. When I was thinking of naming my business after a tree, my husband observed that a willow tree is tenacious. Tenacious, meaning determined and persistent, seemed like a good metaphor for what I was about to embark on.”
Despite her years of experience with agencies, Barens says she faced a huge learning curve when she went out on her own. “I was knowledgeable, but the challenge was how to put my knowledge into practice,” she says. Her first order of business was to obtain appointments with carriers.
Realizing that this would be a herculean task for her fledgling agency, Barens connected with Couri Insurance Associates, an agency cluster based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “I was warmly welcomed into the ranks of Couri member agencies and have received invaluable support from Jerry Couri, president of Couri Insurance Agency, as well as Steve Albinger, CIC, CISR, vice president of marketing and operations for the cluster,” Barens says. “As a member I have access to more than 50 carriers that serve a wide range of markets. Members remain independent and control their own books of business.”
Barens places an especially high value on her relationship with State Auto Insurance Companies. “During my tenure with a previous agency, I was involved in the State Auto PaceSetter Producer Development Program,” she explains. For twelve months she was coached by sales development director Ken Fields, CPCU, CIC, CLU, ChFC, who reports that during that time she led her class of 50 producers and wrote over $1.7 million in new property/casualty premium.
Gaining access to carriers was a huge first step, Barens continues; the second step was learning how to negotiate with them. To her surprise, she discovered a fact that is familiar to every seasoned agent: “Everything is negotiable. I didn’t realize that until I was talking with a carrier rep and asked about something I wanted. He said ‘Okay,’ and I thought ‘Wow … you mean this is all negotiable?’ Now everything we do is a negotiated deal, from contracts with carriers to arrangements for delivering water to our office,” she says with pride.
When it came to prospecting, Barens did it the old-fashioned way. “I pounded the pavement and banged on a lot of doors, attended a ton of networking events, and used the selling strategies I had learned at State Auto,” she says. “From the time I opened my doors in June 2016 to the end of the year, I made just shy of $50,000 in commissions, so I had a little bit of traction. In 2017, I doubled my premium and commissions. In 2018, I acquired the agency in Grand Rapids, and that added about $50,000 more in commissions. In 2019, I tripled in size. This year, because of the pandemic, it’s hard to predict what kind of results we’ll achieve,” Barens observes.
From her earliest days as an agency owner, Barens resolved to work only with clients in industries that align with her moral compass. As evidence that her compass points unerringly toward true north, consider that last year Barens donated a kidney to an unknown recipient.
“We work with nonprofits and service organizations, and we focus on clients who are dedicated to serving the community,” Barens explains. “We also write some staffing and manufacturing risks because I really like helping those clients obtain more favorable workers compensation premiums by showing them how to lower their experience mods. On the personal lines side, I like the fact that our Grand Rapids office has such a high concentration of Hispanic clients because that market is so underserved and so vulnerable to exploitation. I feel morally obligated to provide them quality products and service at a fair price.”
Doing the right thing
Speaking of fairness, Barens believes the industry has a way to go in creating a level playing field for women in leadership positions. “It’s still an old boys’ club,” she comments. “Women are not well represented in the industry’s leadership ranks. Willow is an all-female agency with everyone working in a highly supportive environment. It’s not that I’d never hire a man, but I want to be sure that our employees are never subjected to any kind of inappropriate or discriminatory treatment. For my part, I try to lead by example and do my own ‘right thing,’” she asserts.
A big “right thing” for Willow Insurance Group is to become certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Certification validates that the business is 51% owned, controlled, operated, and managed by a woman or women. Once certified, a business has access to a current list of supplier diversity and procurement executives at major corporations and federal, state, and local governments that accept WBENC certification. WBENC is also an approved Third Party Certifier for the U.S. Small Business Administration Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting program.
Obtaining WBENC certification is a complex and lengthy process, Barens remarks; and, while Willow qualifies for certification, the agency needs to prepare and submit the required documentation.
“Since opening our doors in 2016, we’ve experienced rapid growth year over year,” she says. “Because we’ve focused on managing and growing our book, the certification process has been slow. Maybe while we’re under a mandate to stay in place, we can get our ducks in a row.”
At Willow Insurance Group, where motivated women collaborate harmoniously and productively to achieve goals, the ducks definitely seem to be lined up in a neat row. Based on her experience, Barens believes the independent agency system can be an ideal career choice for a woman who has the drive, determination, and heart to meet challenges head on.
Among the benefits she cites are flexibility, compensation based on merit, and the sense of fulfillment that comes from helping clients thrive by crafting solutions to address their insurance and risk management issues.
“No doubt about it: Selling and servicing insurance is a very hard job,” Barens acknowledges. “It’s complicated, it’s technical, and clients can sometimes seem unreasonable. Despite all that, however, I’ve found that the rewards far outweigh the challenges, and sometimes the challenges bring their own rewards.”
Do you know a female independent agency leader we should feature? If so, please email details about her as well as contact information, to Elisabeth Boone, CPCU, senior features editor (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’ll take it from there.